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November 21st, 2012
10:01 AM ET

Lessons learned from surviving cancer 5 times

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.  Chef Eric LeVine has won awards, written a cookbook and beat out three competitors to become a Food Network "Chopped" champion.  But his biggest battles have been with cancer. He's won five times, and in the process he's learned about the importance of support and the weight of the family burden that comes with those battles.

When I found out that I had cancer for the first time, I decided not to say anything to my family members for about six weeks.  Why?  That's the question my family asked me when I finally told them.

I had a lot to consider.  I had thought about the pressure and concern they would all have for me.  I thought about the weight that would put on them, the worry they would have and I just didn't want them to worry.  I have always been the one to carry my friends and family,  to help when I could, to be the strong one.  I didn't want to be perceived as needy or weak. It's just not in my DNA.

I never asked for help; I never wanted it, no matter how sick I was. I drove myself to treatments and asked everyone to just treat me as if nothing was wrong.

Well, that didn't work.  People would call all day, sometimes twice a day.  I thought if I wasn't thinking about it, it was easier.  To know that you can die from something -  it was just too much pressure.  When everyone asked how I was feeling all day and night, it was a constant reminder.

So I realized that the best way for me to use this knowledge - my experience - was to pay it forward.  Not with cancer patients, but with their families - teaching them how they can help their family member, the cancer patient.

I've learned that little things go a long way.  One question I get all the time is: "How do I help my XYZ? I want to make them feel better and be sure they are OK."  My best advice has been to not burden the patient with your worries.  It causes unintentional but also undue stress, because not only does the individual have to worry about what they are going through - the future and the fun of treatments - but now you have just saddled them with your worry.  Just letting the individual know you care and you're there for them is important.  He or she will ask for help when they need it.

For me, it was my battle every time, my fight.  I chose to live or not.  The mind is the strongest weapon a cancer patient has. You can't will a cancer patient to fight, it comes from within.  Be there for him or her, love them, support them, don't drag them down.

It's a tough enough battle.


soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Gabriel

    You are the man. I hope if I'm ever in that situation, I can be that strong. God bless you bro!

    November 21, 2012 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Softship

    II am a little disturbed by "I chose to live or not. The mind is the strongest weapon a cancer patient has."
    That implies that the people who do not survive did not chose to live, their mind was not strong enough.
    You cannot prove the truth of that statement, I cannot disprove it.
    I I was diagnosed with a terminal disease 13 years ago. Statistically I should have died a long time ago.
    II do not think that my will was so important to my survival, because at times during my 13-month hospital stay, it was gone.
    II just happen to have a very healthy heart that kept on beating...

    November 22, 2012 at 06:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Eric LeVIne

      @softship . I am happy that you have been able to beat the odds. Its a true testament to who you are. My statements were not meant to disturb you, its sharing in my experince.
      Going through this 5 times I was unfortunate to see many many people who gave up, lost the mental will to live and subsequently died. That is where I draw the idea of the mind is the strongest weapon, that is proof positive beyond a shadow of a doubt. i also was blessed to see more people who projected a positive outlook, fight the good fight and beat cancer. I wish all the best. Eric LeVine

      November 23, 2012 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
  3. Lauren

    Thank you. Great advice for friends and families.

    November 23, 2012 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. RS

    You are so right. I did not tell anyone outside of my immediate family. I and my family had to live with it 24/7 inside my house for the year I fought cancer. I decided that living with it inside my house was enough and we should have a life outside our house. I also wanted to be treated normally and wanted to remain 'ME' not 'me with cancer'. I was told 5 years ago that I only had 6 mos. to live. I did hours and hours of research and asked endless questions of all the specialists and as a result altered my treatment by refusing radiation due the after effects it would bring on later in life. Guess my way worked, I'm still here and do not have to worry about the health risks that I would have had to as a result of having radiation therapy AND have seen birthdays, anniversaries and Christmases that I should not have.

    November 25, 2012 at 06:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Blynn

    Thank you for sharing your story. I agree with your idea of paying it forward and educating friends and family who want to help. I too am very independent and have done as much as possible on my own regarding my cancer treatments since 1987. But when I received my seventh cancer diagnosis in 2011, the treatments were more toxic than in the past. I had to learn that allowing my family to care for me actually gave them a way to cope with my situation.

    March 10, 2013 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.